Nairobi - Trip 1

Nairobi and Naivasha

We had already planned a trip to Nairobi and Naivasha before our sudden exit from the farm but brought the first leg of the trip forward by a couple of days. After spending a very pleasant two days with the neighbors, we met our driver James at the farm gate, loaded up our bags, of which there were far too many. Had we known we would be traveling around Kenya for 6 months we would have brought less luggage! We said our goodbyes and arranged to meet the neighbors again for a trip to the Lolldiagas, a nearby cattle ranch, when we headed back this way after our planned sojourn.

The road back to Nairobi was as it was on the way up, busy with vendors selling all kinds of wares along the roadside, setting up their stalls in the red dusty earth. The day was warm, the sun shining through the clouds that had blown over Mount Kenya, and we opened the windows in the car, only to have to close them on many occasions to stop the dust choking us even though we were wearing our masks. We stopped off at a small village to drop off James’ brother Jeremy and we were delighted to be invited into their humble home to meet his wife and two children. They lived in a small apartment block, with very basic furniture, a sofa, two chairs and a fridge in the living room. The children were shy, but came around when we took out our phones and showed them pictures of our grandchildren, who were the same age. We spent a pleasant 15 minutes chatting and then it was time to leave, Jeremy off to a football game, being a Sunday afternoon, the day for friendly ‘footie’.

We continued on the main road to Nairobi, hitting the outskirts in the early afternoon. Traffic was light, but as usual, all over the place. No lane designation lines even on what we would call a 4-lane highway, everyone out for himself, to get in front of the next person. Speed bumps slowed everyone down and once again vendors walked among the cars at these humps, plying their wares from board games and bananas, to brooms and bandanas. We were staying in the Karen area of Nairobi, which is about 10km to the west of the city, close to the Ngong Hills. The area is named after Karen Blixen who settled there on her coffee farm and who is famous for her book Out of Africa. We traveled through the center of Nairobi, not really seeing very much other than a lot of road construction, apartment blocks, some which looked quite new and had ‘western’ facilities, gyms, pools etc. We entered the Karen area which was made up leafy lanes and large properties hidden behind towering iron gates with the customary armed security guard outside, and walled in with electrical barbed wire across the top. We wondered why it was so necessary to have such high security. The disparity between those that have and those that have not is obvious, but we never felt unsafe and even walked every day through those leafy lanes, as the locals did, going to work at their jobs either as gardeners, housemaids and estate managers. Everyone we met was very friendly and gave us a cheery ‘Jambo’ each day. There was a medical training center nearby and we often saw the young nurses walking along the dirt paths in their crisp white and blue uniforms, smiling and laughing as they made their way to the center. We also saw ‘the help’ walking dogs or exercising the horses, and we wondered – if the owners didn’t do gardening, housework, washing, cooking, walking their dogs or exercising their horses, whatever did they do to fill their time? – behind their fortified fences, inside their bubbles, seemed like a very boring existence to me.

One of my first tasks to do while in the city was to have a haircut! My white locks were getting bushier by the day and I was starting to look like a wild woman. We called an Uber and were taken to The Hub, a shopping mall where there was a hairdresser. As we pulled into the parking area, we were disappointed to see KFC, Subway, Burger King, Cold Stone Creamery, Domino’s Pizza and we worried we wouldn’t find something healthy to eat. There was a Carrefour so we could stock up on a few items for the apartment that we could cook. We found the hairdresser and I walked in looking to see if there were any ‘westerners’ already being styled, but only saw a lady having a pedicure. I was desperate, so I asked the young receptionist if there was anyone to cut my hair and she politely said ‘of course’ but I could see the sheer look of terror on her face as she scoured the salon for someone to ask. She finally went out the back and returned with a young Kenyan guy who was very polite, gave me a big smile and said he would be happy to cut my hair. I sent Marcel off to take a look at what the rest of the mall had to offer and was guided to the sink area to have a hair wash. I was gently laid back in very comfortable chair and the young girl gently washed and conditioned my hair. Then she gave me the most luxurious head massage, which made me sink so deeply into the chair I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get up and walk to the styling booth. After 15 minutes or so I was guided to the booth and Jack introduced himself and I briefly described what I needed and showed him a picture of my last haircut. He took a quick look and commenced with the clipping. He started at the back so I couldn’t see what was happening but as he snipped his way to the top, I could see him take my hair tentatively between his finger and thumb and swiftly snip away with his shiny, sharp scissors. I decided that I would close my eyes, relax and see what emerged. Marcel came by to see how things were going, but when he saw how Jack was pawing my hair in wonder, he had to leave! After about 20 minutes or so, I opened my eyes and was pleasantly surprised. Not a bad cut at all. He wondered if I needed it shorter on the top, but given that he was a little apprehensive I told him it was just fine. With a quick blow dry, and a bill that was not much cheaper than my usual ticket in the US, I thanked him, and left the salon feeling like a million dollars after no haircut for almost 3 months! We duly bought our groceries and found a nice café and bakery, with healthy food, and had a pleasant lunch. It was nice to have the conveniences of a supermarket and have a clean and organized place to shop, but decided we would stay away from the malls and try to shop locally, whenever possible. The markets turned out to be the best option as most of the ‘local stores’ were very small kiosk type shops, closed in behind bars and many of the ‘supermarkets’ were very limited in their stock.

While we were in Karen we visited a small community of single and underprivileged mothers. On this community they made clay beads and necklaces and we were given a tour of the ‘factory’. It was very interesting to see how the clay was made, how the beads were hand rolled, then fired, then hand painted and finally strung together in wonderful designs. Before COVID, Kazuri beads was able to employ 340 women, ensuring they had a job, a decent wage and support for their families. At this time there were fewer women working, demand being stifled by the lockdowns around the world. Of course I purchased several necklaces and plan on buying more on our way home!

We walked along the road to the Tamambo Restaurant which is at the site of Karen Blixen’s brother’s house. We sat outside in the garden, had a lovely lunch with a glass of wine and then headed down the street to the Karen Blixen Museum which was interesting. I had read Out of Africa many years ago, and had started rereading before we left the USA, and I was currently reading the story of Dennis Finch Hatton, her lover (Robert Redford in the film) so much of it was relatable. We had a lovely young man as a guide and he obviously loved what he did and enjoyed practicing his very proper English. The walk back to the apartment was about 5 km and my feet were sore after our walk up to and around the bead factory, the walk to the restaurant along with the wine, and then the walk and tour of the museum, so an Uber was called. Thank goodness for this service. It’s a great way to get around; they just need to make sure their ‘employees’ are taken care of!

After a day lounging at the apartment, with just a short walk around the neighborhood, we decided that the next day would be to the Karura Forset, just north of the city. Here we walked through dense forest with enormous trees, watching out for mischievous monkeys and finding some lovely waterfalls. We also found some caves that were hideouts for those rebels of the Mau Mau uprising, which I had also read about in my attempt to understand some of the history of Kenya. It was amazing to see these caves carved into the hillside and realizing that men had been holed up here, trying to avoid the British Army during the uprising. I could imagine them sitting around the fire, eating their ugali and choma, their pangas strapped to their sides, ever ready to swing at anyone who came by unexpectedly. We walked for about 7 kms and headed back to the apartment by Uber again. We unfortunately hit rush hour and the traffic was bumper to bumper all the way through the city, with red dust flying everywhere. Many people were walking home from work, which would certainly prove to be much quicker, one young lady passing us several times over a 2km stretch. Everyone walked with purpose, no dawdling, all wearing masks and all very well dressed having just come from work in the office. There were men in suits, shiny leather shoes, starched white collars and I wondered how they managed to keep everything so white and clean, considering the dust, pollution, scant water at times and when it did flow, was usually cold and tinged the color of rust. There were endless road works, with no alternative traffic direction. Drivers would just have to avoid the potholes, and any work being done, making their own routes around workers and excavating equipment, sometimes not being able to take their designated route and having to make a detour of several kilometers. It seemed like the city had risen out of the earth and now they were making roads to go around the buildings and communities, none meeting up with others, many dead ends and no traffic system that I could see. There were several roundabouts in the city, but there seemed to be no rules of the road here, cars just joining the cars already on the roundabout and pushing through until they had to turn off. Even traffic lights were rarely complied with, especially by the Boda Bodas. Red light? Nothing coming? Go! Red light? Something coming, but time to slip through? No problem! Surprisingly we never saw any accidents, not even a fender bender. We also never heard the constant police or fire engine sirens that you typically hear when you are in a busy city, and only once saw an ambulance with its sirens and lights going. We asked James, our driver, whether this was because there were few accidents and fires, or whether the services were not available. The services were there, but seemed not to be utilized often. The police were corrupt, so no one would call them for help; the hospitals were small community hospitals, so unless it was a dire emergency or accident, the main hospital was for scheduled operations, and it seemed there were very few fires, which is surprising since there was a lot of charcoal still burned in the smaller thatched huts that still dotted areas of the city.

We would be returning to Nairobi before we left home so decided that the center of the city could wait. There didn’t seem too much to see so we decided a quick tour before we left for home would be sufficient.

It’s funny how things turn out. While we were deciding what to do now, seeing as our 6 months at the farm had been cut short, we looked for house sits in the UK in the hope that we could spend some time there rather than returning to the US. COVID was rampant in both places, so one was no better than the other. So on scouting the housesitting sites we came upon a house sit in ….Mombasa! Just a short flight away on the Kenyan coast. This was an easy one; a large house with a pool. The owner needed someone to sweep the pool daily, while she was in Germany settling her late father’s estate. We immediately applied and after a day or so, we had a response and a phone call followed. She would need us from 11 March for 6 weeks! We agreed and so we were staying Africa after all!

We planned our time until then….the next few days would be as planned in Naivasha, then we decided we would head back towards Nanyuki and catch up with the neighbors and staff from the farm and booked a house at Mount Kenya Wildlife Estates, a vacation home complex next door to the Ol Pejeta conservancy, for 3 weeks, then a return to Nairobi to extend our visas. After that, we would fly to Lamu, a small island off the coast of Kenya, for another 3 weeks before moving down the coast to Mtwapa, just north of Mombasa, for our 6 week house sit. We were excited to be staying in the country, hoping to experience more of the Kenyan way of life. Our biggest burden was the luggage. We had brought enough clothes to accommodate two countries, three climates and all the gadgets and gizmos that make life easier. Now we had to carry these 6 bags with us around the country. Our driver, James was great at loading them into the car; I was worried the extra weight would damage his suspension, which on the really bumpy unfinished roads, was already in jeopardy. As we would be flying to Lamu, and a more tropical climate, we asked if he could store three of the bags for us, ones containing hiking boots, sweaters and warmer clothes that we had needed in the UK and in the evenings at the farm but would not be required in the tropics.  He was happy to help and we agreed to pay him for taking up the space in his small home. Until that time, we still had a few stops to make… the next one being Naivasha!

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